Sunday, February 28, 2010

over at the rainbow

One last day to do right by winter. One final time. (Other March week-ends I am either away or working.)

But the day starts off poorly. I take an hour to fiddle with the new blog format and that hour turns into a two hour tagging project, which then, in turn, puts me in a sickeningly nostalgic mood (have you ever tried to run through your life backwards, day by day for five years? With photos that appear to demonstrate how much better, richer, fuller your time was then? Before work wiped out all free time?)

I say to my occasional traveling companion this – Ed, my days were better, richer, fuller back in 2006 (the year I happen to be tagging for the blog). I traveled extensively, we hiked every week-end, I poured my soul into food preparation...

In other words, you lived beyond your means –  Ed responds. The man does not mince words.

Still, after a tumultuous back and forth about the virtues of frugality and the folly of buying condos as opposed to staying put or scaling down, or living in a sheepshed, or whatever! – we agree to set out and explore.

Ed tells me there's a "Yarn on the Farm" wool spinning and knitting and so on open house at the Rainbow Fleece Farm. I don’t spin. I don’t knit. I don’t do anything with wool. Indeed wool makes me itch. But the ad in the weekly paper makes it seem so colorful! And I’m thinking we need to get ourselves out of the gray mood of the morning.


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Rainbow Fleece Farm is in rural New Glarus (some 30 miles south of Madison). Patty Reedy and Andy Wersal are a husband and wife team and they have thrown themselves body and soul into wool making (carding, spinning, dyeing, knitting – you name it, they do it).

Is there a big market for this? – Ed's curious.
It’s a niche thing. We fulfill it.

I look at a printed flyer for one of their items:  Warm and Wooly Sheepskins: a natural product from laughing lambs raised in the limestone hills of Rainbow Fleece Farm.

Andy invites us to look in the barns. Sheep and the lambs – sweet, cuddly little things. As usual, banded and bonded and distrustful of strangers.


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...and then there are the peacocks (they’re fun – Andy tells us)...


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...and the geese (owning geese convinces you that the natural world was not programmed for peace). In the five minutes that we were there, the geese fight four major battles and in between, hiss and squawk and chase each other the length of the barn and back again.


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But harmony reigns in the hen house. I think. Or, is it that she perched precariously on the sill to get away from the mother hen? Please, come down! You're making a fool of yourself up there!


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Oh, what is she doing up there?


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In one of the back buildings, Andy and Patty show us the carding shed, as well as their “studio.” Sheepskins and bales of wool that would make your eyes water with envy if you were the talented type that could put it all to good use.


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And you don’t have to drive out all the way to New Glarus to get some. They sell at various places in town, and especially at two weekly farmers markets (Willie Street and Fitchburg). And they also have free range eggs and... well, other lamb products. Brats, leg of lamb, chops. Right there for your freezer, next to the roast chicken. What can I say, it's important to know your food (and wool) source. And these farmers raise their animals well. You can tell.


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We tell them we'll see them at the markets (for the eggs!) and make our way down the muddy hill back to Ed's Geo. The cats watch us leave.


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I’m thinking how splendid it is for us that Madison is surrounded by farms such as this. Places that may as well bind themselves into picture books for children -- about wool here, or yogurt, or goat cheese, or spinach, or apple cider. To market, to market... along with pots of blooming plants and jars of the jam your grandma never taught you to make way back when.




We have a few hours left before dusk. We drive toward the nearby New Glarus Woods – a state park with a half dozen miles of hiking trails. A last winter walk. Surely that. Because the snow already feels mushy and wet.



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We are the only ones at the park (the lot is empty, as are the trails). At one end of the trail, we hear the occasional car on the nearby road, but mostly, we immerse ourselves in the profound quiet. A woodpecker is working away at a trunk, but he may be many, many feet away. The noise carries far in a still forest and across snow covered fields.


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There are more deer tracks here than I have ever seen in any one place, but we see none of the deer now. It’s as if they all left for a big wedding or convention, leaving no one behind. Only the woodpecker.


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Driving back to Madison, I try to catch up on the reading I should have been doing all day long, but I can’t. Maybe I’m still stuck in a snow drift in the forest, pulling my feet out along the path. Maybe I just miss too much days when I didn't worry excessively about work.


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Soon. I work hard at times, so that at other times I don’t have to work hard at all. A pattern that is the exact opposite of a farmer’s life. Or Ed’s life. Or perhaps the life of most anyone I know.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

risk

Here's a test for whether you're a risk taker. Say you blog. Say you have faithfully posted daily for more than five years. Pretend, too, that your wild dreams are about you being a writer. So that maybe you're this closet writer for now, and maybe someday the closet will spring open and you, well practiced, what with your blog and all, will fly.

Oh, and say you've been a serious amateur photographer all your life. At times more amateurish than at other times, but still, you've always had a camera with you.

But now your story-blog is showing its age. The template, selected from the far reaches of medieval era Internet, no longer likes being told to do modern tricks. It's sort of like using a Betamax when the world has moved on to VHS. Or even DVDs.

And so your blog is now stumbling. Posts are disappearing, photos duck in, duck out, HTML errors are compounding as you struggle to put in code you don't fully understand.

So now what?

If you're a risk taker, you ignore warnings (do NOT switch to another template! you'll risk losing EVERYTHING!) and you move the whole blog to a new residence. Something more modern. With light fixtures and hot running water, as opposed to an HTML outhouse and no heat to speak of.

So here I am in my brand new surroundings. And things are working just fine! Sure, you, the reader may not care that before, clicking on the label "Poland: Warsaw" only pulled out a handful of posts, and now you'll get the full spectrum (that is, once I finish tagging everything), but I care.

Someday when I'm old and infirm and I forget that I ever traveled to Poland, I'll be able to click on Poland: Warsaw, and travel along (with what I'll think is someone else's trip).

Unless I do a major switch in the future and that one will make Ocean disappear.

Gulp.


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maintenance

I'm making blog improvements. Forgive the posts for the next hours -- they are merely trial runs.

Friday, February 26, 2010

store hours

It’s quiet in the shop on cold evenings. Occasionally someone will stop by, purchase our most soothing item, chat a little, and reluctantly push the door to the bitter cold again.

For the second night in a row, I’ve had friends stop by. That’s always exceptionally pleasant. A chance to exchange a few words before they, too, push the door and head out.

Late, just before closing, an unlikely customer stops by. In retail, you have to expect this – the person who looks like no customer you’ve ever helped. This guy is young, bearded, with dreadlocks reaching way past the shoulder blades. A winter cap is pulled low over his head. I would have readily bet my paycheck that he was here to get warm and not to buy. And so, after brief introductions, I let him browse.

He asks questions – pointed questions about product X or Y. And eventually, after I open jar of this and point to a jar of that , we settle in on one item, I mumble the price, thinking for sure that would be the end of it.

The visitor tells me -- I'll take it. And I wrap it for him to take home.


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Thursday, February 25, 2010

spinach

Absolutely the best spinach on the planet is grown right here, in Wisconsin, in the dead of winter. In fact, the colder it is, the more magnificent the flavor of the spinach. (Go figure.)

This year we signed up to be regulars: all winter, every two weeks, the farmer hands us a pound of crisp, washed, best on the planet spinach. (He actually leaves it at a store. Paid by us in advance.)

Someone has to pick up the spinach within a day or else it gets passed on to someone else. I like the idea of helping others, but I’ve always been rather anemic and so I move mountains to get there in time. I need my spinach!

Ed is with his cats today. I dare not tear him away. It’s up to me.

But how? It’s not on my bus route. And it’s cold outside. Well below freezing. DOn't even mention the bicycle.

Within moments I have a plan:

I’ll ride the bus, then walk partway, then, spinach in hand, I’ll ride the remainder to campus.

Fine plan. The sun’s out. The late February birds make their pre-spring appearance on my condo balcony.


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Twenty minutes into the walk I think maybe it’s time to switch to the bus. It’s nippy. The wind’s gusting a punch. I dig into my pack for my bus pass.

Oops.

Left the bugger at home. Now what? Some would pay the bus fares. But what a waste!

Resolve: walk. Walk to spinach store. Walk to office. Walk home. Walk, damn it, Put in some steps already. Zip up the jacket, give a firm twist to the scarf (it really is cold!) and walk. It can’t be more than 8 miles total. Walk already!


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And so I do.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

fresh perspective

Sometimes, little do you know when you wake up that it’s going to be that kind of day. Charged. Raw. Emotional.

Not that you could have done things differently. It’s almost as if some force put you on a track with emotional charges along the way and all you can do is sit back and watch the hits happen. Bang! And again! And again!

By early afternoon much of the ride was over and done. I had just one more class and then I could exhale.



In my office, I turn off the lights (or, the switch that allows the lights to come on as I move around) and look out.


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There is a sudden squall of snow. Big, wet snow – the kind that’s very very pretty to watch and less fun if you’re outside in it, unprotected. Call it emotional snow.

Maybe it can wash off the debris from the day...



I continue to work. I have a dinner meeting later on State Street and there is no reason to rush in the hours before it. Dusk morphs into evening time. I am indifferent to it. I'm spent by the earlier hours.


Outside, the air is colder than I would have wanted for an evening walk.


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So what. It’s the tail end of the day. The tail end of winter. The tail end of an uncomfortable season.

I walk up the stairs to Fresco, the place of the dinner meeting and I look out on one of the most interesting views in Madison: the intersection of streets makes it appear as if you are on the crossroads of some great event about to happen.


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Maybe you could say that the great event was the delicious, fresh and honest food at Fresco. On the other hand, maybe you could say that the great event was that there would be no more great events, no great swishes of emotion for the remainder of the day.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

rough rides

I’m chasing my shadow this week. Running in circles, attempting to do a great push forward, trying to keep spirits up as so many around me are having rough rides.

Not the roughest, but rough enough has been the ride of my occasional travel buddy, who has come down with something so benign and yet so perversely irritating as a sore tooth. To look at his face when his soul is crushed under the weight of pain is not easy. What can I say, pain is pain and I watch with pity, alternating with a tiny bit of a smile, as he works his way through an entire prescription of pain medication from early evening until the wee hours of the morning. Luckily, he is seen and treated by the time the little container is shaken dry and tossed aside.

Afterwards, he is without memory about what transpired. Pain? Eh, not a big deal. (Meaning: all gone!)

As between Ed and me, I would say I spend perhaps thirty times as much time in doctors’ offices and twenty times as many hours in dentists’ chairs as he does, but this only makes me understand how terrible it is to go through the ordeal of waiting rooms and scheduled meetings with people in white cloaks who are there to make you feel better. In the long run. So I sympathize.

But only so much. I am in the mad rush of another busy week with not one, not two, not three, but four nights of work ahead and that’s in addition to the work that envelopes the daytime hours.

What can I say. These are challenging times. At least I don’t force myself to sport it out on my commute to and from campus. Others do.


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bare shin?


Come to think of it, maybe I should...

Monday, February 22, 2010

trespass

You should never reach for the camera when three deer jump the road just in front of your car. (Even when you’re not driving.) I mean, what are you thinking – that they’ll pause, look back and smile? Or that there will be a fourth one?

Well there was a fourth one. And by then I had my camera in hand. And I wasn’t driving. And I looked to see her sprint through the view finder. And I then remembered that I had the lens cap on to protect the lens. And no, there was not a fifth one.

This was yesterday. We were driving back from Cedarburg the back-road way and we detoured toward Pike Lake State Forest. Not that we intended to hike there. It was nearly noon and I had to be at work within two hours.


Maybe we should have come here earlier? I ask Ed.
I liked the walk we took this morning, he answered. Sincerely.

He didn’t mean through town, although that stroll was plenty nice. We stopped at the bakery to try their baguette and their chocolate pear croissant. (Any bakery in Madison interested in taking on this combination? It’s a wonderful blend of flavors!)


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He was refering to the one after: the one that left us driving, searching for a path, an entrance – anything! -- over at the Cedar Bog, some ten miles north of town. The B&B owners told us we’d find trails there. We found none.

Or maybe we did? There was a wood chip road of sorts, blocked off, but maybe it was meant for visitors? Maybe? Maybe the No Trespassing sign, rusted and bent, was for vehicles? The map indicated this was Nature Conservancy land. I support the Nature Conservancy! As does Ed! We are them and they are us!

We followed the wood chip path through the utter quiet of a forest and a snow-covered marshland. Huge bird prints made us think the wild turkeys preceded us. Hoof marks told us for sure deer had been here too. But we saw neither. I’d like to think we did not disturb them, even as they certainly did not disturb us.


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The path ended at a lake – Mud Lake maybe? One of the thousands of Mud Lakes in our state.


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Not a soul around. Just three lonely ducks making their way to the island. And us watching. Not even photographing, just watching. Loving every minute of the stillness, the emptiness in this quietest of all seasons.


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Sunday, February 21, 2010

snow stories

It was the kind of snow that made the roads wet, but not in a pretty way. With the thermometer hovering just a breath above freezing, it’s as if it couldn’t make up its mind whether to stick or disappear in a puddle.

We took the back road east out of Madison.


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But the landscape remained relentlessly misty wet and understated and so we rejoined the highway, speeding all the way to Milwaukee, where we turned north, leaving the wet blocks of a city that looks especially dispirited on a tail end of winter kind of day.


I was feeling apologetic. The trip was my idea. We hadn’t done enough of Wisconsin winter exploring, what with my moonlighting at the shop and my incessant case reading. It was supposed to have been sunny, so I had reason to push us out.

But it wasn’t sunny.

As we approached Cedarburg (just 20 miles north of Milwaukee, and a few miles inland from Lake Michigan), I was thinking that we’ll likely not leave the b&b much. It was that wet outside.

Cedarburg is an old milling town and it is probably one of the best preserved such towns in Wisconsin. Money hasn’ flown to the peripheries like in so many places with quasi abandoned main streets. Along Cedarburg's main drag, I counted no fewer than four bustling caf├ęs, a boulangerie, three chocolate shops – in addition to the bars, crafts stores, barber shops and a funky rebuilt retro movie house (where the live person behind the window shouted out hello to passersby).


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But I couldn’t shake the thought that this 24 hour get away (I have to work Sunday) was ill-planned. We’ve got some wet weather here – was Ed’s comment as he got out of the Geo.

Our b&b was on the Main Street – a dangerous choice if you’re traveling with Ed as he regards street noise as something to run from. But I had liked the looks of this simple but solid old structure, and its good prices (even on a week-end, $85 for two, with breakfast).


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Once inside, I relaxed. The place is quiet. The kind where you expect to hear a clock tick. Ed nodded – it’s nice , he tells me.


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The late afternoon. It’s a “last chance” time of day. We decide to ignore the wet thin flakes and to head out for the Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve on the shores of Lake Michigan.

It’s funny how the same wet flakes that fall over the paved roads and stubby cornfields look entirely different in a forest.


The air is still and at the top of the bluff we can hear the soft ripple of lake waters moving over the pebbles by the shore.


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Not frozen this year, not even at the edges.

We follow the Bluff Trail to the gorge and it is so completely quiet that even a whispered comment seems too much. Ed's hair and beard become magnets for the flakes. They hold on for a minute, then melt away.


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As we descend the bluff, the forest looks pretty enough to be on a holiday card. Season's Greetings from Wisconsin!


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The air is wet with mist and the shoreline quickly disappears somewhere into the same horizon that hides the edges of the Great Lake.


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It’s a beautiful walk. Up the hill now and around the loop. We encounter a man and a lively dog. A real jumper he is. Yes, I’m training him. He’s getting better. Leap, wag, leap – who can blame him. The snow, the wet end of winter air, the red dogwood branches – it’s all rather inspiring. Leap, bark – I could see joining him in this.


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But we move on. Birches, cedar, so completely still that not a single flake is blown off..


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In Cedarburg we abandon the car and poke around Main Street. Breads, pastries, chocolate, coffee. Life's essentials. Someone has figured it out. We stuff our pockets for the critical moment when we just may need a pecan caramel cluster.


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The lights are on now. At the curb, ice sculptures from some former winter event are barely surviving in the 35 degree weather.


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We walk out on the old rail bridge that crosses the river here. It’s part of the Interurban rail connection that once linked Sheboygan and Milwaukee.


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We eat dinner at Morton’s – a local pub. At least we’re told that this is where the locals eat. As so many travelers, we like to eat foods geared for local tastes, even if up and down Wisconsin, those tastes don’t change much – the menu will have the burgers and steaks and fried fish and cobb salads -- all that any good Midwesterner would like to see on a night out. But there’s always a twist that’ll make a pub stand apart. Here, I read we can have a fried cheesecake or Cajun friend shrimp or friend artichoke.


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I stay with a good little steak and Ed puts together his own Cobb salad and we watch the Olympics on a big screen that for once grabs no one’s attention except my own. The colors and noises of a pub are such a contrast to the silence of the afternoon! But I'm not complaining. It has been such a good day.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

escape

Two days ago, on a break from case reading, I looked up the weather for the week-end. Sunny! -- weather.com announced.

It seemed right to give winter a final moment in the spotlight. Sorry, -- in the sun. To get in the car, head out into the countryside, and then dive into a snowbank or two, all the while reveling in glorious light of a February afternoon.

What I appreciate about my occasional traveling companion is this: when nothing turns out to be as it had been planned, he appears not to notice.

(Today, he appeared not to notice.)

The details are for tomorrow. Though let me leave you with a hint of where we are at the moment:


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No no, not the Gulf of Mexico. Here, let me add another hopeful to help sort things properly.


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Tomorrow I’ll explain. For now, let me say this much: Wisconsin can offer up splendid days even in February, even when the sun stays well hidden behind puffy clouds of gray.

Friday, February 19, 2010

a wild ride

Not many obsess about the IRS in mid-February.

This year, I did.

It started a week ago, when I received a friendly note from my state benefits office informing me that for reason X, Y & Z, and don’t forget about Q, they will, for a year, impute income to me. Income that I will never see or touch, but that the IRS will be very happy to tax. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Then, today, I Turbo-taxed my way to a wee refund for 2009. Mind you, hardly even a splash of coins, but it could well have been a seizure rather than a splash (moonlighting messes with proper withholding) and so I breathed a sigh of relief.

Also today, I received a letter from the IRS (always a fright), the much dreaded final word on my audited, challenged, appealed deduction, taken back in 2007 (when I was very young and optimistic). I shredded the envelope, looked inside and discovered that the IRS ruled in my favor. I do not need to go to debtor’s prison after all.


I belong to a small minority of Americans who do not despise taxation. But I deeply dislike unpredictability and confusion and so I have to say that the governing bodies who wrangle over additions, deductions, and in general, modifications to the Code (thus exacerbating confusion in my already confused head) do not have my “thumbs up.”

It seems that this month I have traversed some pretty rough IRS terrain. Can you please relax it a bit for the remainder of the year? Please?


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